Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet

This post has been much delayed by the need to reread The Alexandria Quartet; itself interrupted by a commission to review which involved spending a day with The Wealth of Nations (pp 1,000+, in my edition) as well as PJ O'Rourke's digest (only 250 pp) and a week of slow deaths, then good ones.

I commend, in particular, Tammy Faye Messner (full obit) and Don Arden to your attention.

But here is part one of some thoughts.

[Though this is a blog, and not a journalistic or scholarly publication, I am obliged to reviews by George Steiner, Lionel Trilling, Victor Brombert, Carl Bode and Bonamy Dobree, and to Two Cities for interviews with Durrell, for helping with my thoughts on the Quartet (some of those are collected in Harry T Moore's World of Lawrence Durrell (Southern Illinois University Press, 1962), as well as to private correspondence with Durrell and others. My greatest debt is to M John Harrison, whose questions I am not properly answering. But I am, I hope, groping toward answers.]

The Alexandria Quartet, as Mike Harrison points out, presents the reader, and particularly the reader who has fallen under its spell, with a certain amount of difficulty. There is its form. The first two books (Justine and Balthazar) are narrated by Darley, an aspirant writer, and present the same story from two different points of view. Or rather two different primary points of view, because those books, and the others, draw continually from other accounts embedded in the main narrative: Moeurs, the book written by Justine Hosnani’s first husband, Jacob Arnauti (who does not otherwise appear in the novels); the diaries of Gustave Pombal, the French diplomat; the notebooks of Pursewarden (assumed to be a grand old man of letters); etc etc.
In the third book, Mountolive, Darley moves into the background, as the same story is told by the conventional, rather stuffy, British diplomat for whom the book is named. This book is in a much more straightforwardly naturalistic style (though of course that is a matter of degree with Durrell’s prose). Those who enjoyed the style of the other books, rather than being repulsed by it, tend to like it least.

The fourth book, Clea, marks a shift in time. The same characters are in evidence, but we are five years further down the line.
Durrell called the Quartet a “relativity poem”, but the physics is a McGuffin, really or, more generously, a nice device to enable the organisation of material to be conducted according to its emotional importance rather than its chronological or narrative order. His other description – “an investigation into modern love” – reveals the truth. It is not physics but metaphysics which lies at the centre of the web constructed in Alexandria.

Not that there is anything notably modern about the intercourse (of all sorts) in the books. As Durrell admitted, Justine is, on one level, a commonplace sort of Mediterranean adventuress*; on another, Cleopatra might very well have been a bit like her.
In any case, the human characters of the Quartet are all, for all their flamboyant proclamations and outre behaviour, paper toys illustrating one facet or another of Durrell’s view of human relationships. And secondary to the character of Alexandria itself.

Durrell began by setting the story in Athens, but quickly thought better of it; he needs all the contrasts, the colour, the mix of cultures Alexandria offered.

And here we come to what I think may be part of the appeal and the problem of the Quartet. Nothing that anyone does matters for what it achieves, except as it affects their understanding, their sensibility, their definition of their relationships. In a more prosaic city, or one the reader understood, one would always be asking why this or that happens. One would care about the political subplot involving Nessim. One would care about the Cathar machinations of Balthazar (the Da Vinci Code in an early incarnation, in that it is pointlessly exotic twaddle). One would dwell on the English involvement with Egypt (Leila Hosnani’s love for Mountolive) or Pombal and Mountolive’s diplomatic work (about which we hear practically nothing). One might expect some insight about the Second World War, which seems to be there merely as a way of tidying up a few plot details and allowing the characters to grow a bit more. All of that is secondary to the question of whether Darley is going to become a writer (like the Punch cartoon, it obviously doesn’t matter what one writes, one just writes), or the saintly tolerance of Clea and Melissa, or the pathos of Pursewarden’s love for his sister.

One might also object a bit to Durrell’s habit – brilliantly sent up in Malcolm Bradbury’s parody of the “Fifth Quartet” – of maiming his characters, until one begins to wonder whether anyone is going to be left with any of his limbs intact by the end.
But if one accepts that it is that kind of book, the colour, the exotica, the disregard for the real makes sense. As Mike Harrison says, it is purest fantasy, and not only in retrospect. It always was.

And the language makes sense too. Durrell is a poet but an infuriatingly casual writer. He admitted that he was not much interested in the dictionary meaning of words, but only the effect which they set up in the “pineal ear”. Well, that’s all well and good, except that words do happen to mean things, and it rather confuses matters if you blithely belt along ignoring that small detail.

This passage from Mountolive (the least ornate of the books):

He entered the penumbra of the storm slowly, marvelling at the light, at the horizon drawn back like a bow. Odd gleams of sunshine scattered rubies upon the battleships in the basin (squatting under their guns like horned toads). It was the ancient city again... broken pavements made of tinfoil, snail-shells, cracked horn, mica; earth-brick buildings turned to the colour of oxblood; the lovers wandering in Mohammed Ali Square, disorientated by the unfamiliar rain, disconsolate as untuned instruments, the clicking of violet trams along the sea-front among the tatting of palm-fronds. The desuetude of an ancient city whose streets were plastered with the wet blown dust of the surrounding desert..."

George Steiner, in The Yale Review in 1960, drew attention to this as a mosaic, each word in “its precise and luminous place”.
“The clicking of violet trams”, as he writes, is “as complete a sensuous rendition as might be achieved by a pointilliste painter, breaking light into minute, precise flecks and reassembling the elements of vision into memorable design. No one else writing in English today has a comparable command of the light and music of language.”

Well, yes, George. Or perhaps the trams were violet in colour and made a clicking noise. But one knows what he means. In the Quartet, it wouldn’t matter very much if the odd sentence were (as the odd sentence is) literally meaningless. It is not a literal book. It is a litoral one; you must allow it to carry you, like a bride, over the threshhold, ravish you and leave you pleasured. Until, exhausted and vaguely unsatisfied, you begin to wonder: Was that it? And what did he mean by that?

And, as in any love affair, there is no satisfactory answer other than to plunge into the whole business again, attempting constantly to wrestle some sense out of it, before submitting again to the intoxifying power of it.

There is, I think, a real shift in Clea, but it is not really to do with time or narrative sense. It is in identifying sex and relations with others with the acts of knowing and creating. Every man is a latent artist, says Durrell, worryingly (and wrongly). But again, the reader knows what he means. I don’t think that there can be anyone who has ever read and enjoyed the Quartet who does not think of himself as an artist manque. There is no harm in that; it is an assumption of a good many books, and even many good books, even if it can be objected to as a kind of absurd snobbery. I think Durrell may also have overstated his position slightly as a reaction to the sort of novel being written then which, let’s face it, could be terminally deadly.

It was not a world Durrell was unaware of, though, as his short stories about diplomats demonstrate.

The difficulty for Durrell was one that lots of writers spend their lives resolving. It took him a long time to find his voice, as a glance at The Black Book – funny, but deeply indebted to Henry Miller and Wyndham Lewis, paralysed by an insufficient experience of real life (he was pretty young), a love of the Baroque (Fr Rolfe’s fingerprints are evident, too), and with the difficulties Orwell observed as central to any books emerging from a life lived only in the rooming house, brothel and pub – shows.

He wanted to be a writer with a capital W. He was a good poet, and he knew it, but he didn’t want to write a big realistic comic novel (the natural English form), perhaps because he hated England. Besides, Anthony Powell was doing that. The unfunny big pompous English novel was being written by CP Snow.

But the English were discovering the Continent. Some of them had been there fifteen years before, killing people. It wasn’t totally unknown. Europe was exotic; the aid that was rebuilding it (along with their natural resources and the tradition of caring about food, drink and leisure) meant that life in France or Greece or Spain or Italy looked brighter, smelled more enticing, tasted better than boiled cabbage and mutton (if you were lucky) up a stairwell in Glasgow or Leeds or Islington. Elizabeth David was explaining what a lemon was, and that olive oil should not be sold in 10cl bottles as a cure for earache, but lashed on to salads.

Durrell dared to be laughed at; in order to be a big cheese, he wrote like a man who'd heard of one. To Jean Cau he announced, for L'Express, in 1959: "Ici je suis content; je suis un Camembert."

Don't write in saying Alexandria isn't in Europe. You know I know that. It makes you out to be such a wanker, and I'm sure you aren't really. You just need to get out more.






*all the same, harrison, mitts offs, she;s mine

4 comments:

Ian Sales said...

Was it really Europe that appealed to Durrell - or was it just the Mediterranean? After all, he lived on Corfu, Cyprus, Rhodes, and in Greece... And wrote books about each of them. It was only later he settled in France.

One additional point about the Alexandria Quartet: for me, it brilliantly encapsulates the expatriate experience - especially the expatriate experience in the Arab world.

mckie said...

You're quite right. I should have written Mediterranean.

unstrung said...

Keep groping, keep groping, Andrew. Very enjoyable.

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